Democratic debate: Military veterans Tulsi Gabbard and Pete Buttigieg clash over Syria

Rivals for the 2020 nomination face off over whether US is engaged in a 'regime change' war

Negar Mortazavi
Washington DC
Wednesday 16 October 2019 04:48 BST
Tulsi Gabbard at the Democratic debate in Westerville, Ohio
Tulsi Gabbard at the Democratic debate in Westerville, Ohio (REUTERS)

Tulsi Gabbard and Pete Buttigieg – the two military veterans among Democratic candidates for the 2020 nomination – clashed at the latest debate over Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw American troops from northern Syria.

Hawaii congresswoman Gabbard, who has long been a vocal critic of the US presence in Syria, said that the slaughtering of Kurds was a consequence of what she called the "regime-change war" in Syria.

She suggested that not only does Mr Trump have the blood of the Kurds on his hands, but so too do many politicians from both parties who have supported US military involvement in the region.

Ms Gabbard, who served in Iraq, said that were she to become president, she would end “draconian sanctions” on Syria that she said were killing civilians, and that she would “stop supporting terrorists like al-Qaeda who have been the ground force for the regime-change war in Syria”.

She also accused the New York Times and CNN of smearing her as a Russian asset.

She said: "Just two days ago, the New York Times put out an article saying I am a Russian asset and an Assad apologist and all these different smears. This morning a CNN commentator said on national television that I’m an asset of Russia. Completely despicable.”

Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, and a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, told Ms Gabbard she was “dead wrong”.

He said the “slaughter” in Syria was not a consequence of the American presence there but a result of abandoning allies. He said Mr Trump’s actions were taking away the "honour" of US troops and that they "betrayed" American credibility. He suggested that a small number of specialised troops in Syria was the only thing preventing a genocide.

Other candidates on the debate stage took turns to slam Mr Trump for abandoning America’s allies and damaging US credibility across the world, in the eyes of friends and foes.

Elizabeth Warren said she believed the US had to get out of the Middle East and should not have troops there, but needed to do it the right way by negotiating a solution. “This president created a bigger than ever humanitarian crisis,” said the Massachusetts senator.

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who has long criticised and voted against military interventions in the Middle East, said Turkey was not a US ally when it invaded another country and engaged in “mass slaughter”. He said Mr Trump's actions would result in no country trusting the word of the United States or believe “this pathological liar”, referring to the president.

Kamala Harris, a senator from California, said Mr Trump had given thousands of Isis prisoners a "get out of jail card” and suggested that the winners of the latest move are Russia, Bashar al-Assad, Iran and Isis.

Former vice-president Joe Biden called Mr Trump’s move “the most shameful thing” that any president had done in modern history and said US commanders across the board were ashamed.

In response to Ms Gabbard, he said that the US policy in Syria was not about regime change, but making sure the regime did not “wipe people out” in the border area.

Mr Biden said that if Isis prisoners escaped, they would go back to Europe, adding that some could make it to the US.

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Beto O'Rourke, a former congressman from Texas, picked up on that point saying the United States may have to send “another generation of American soldiers” back to fight Isis. He also suggested the US should invest more in diplomacy and the state department, to be able to rely more on the experience of diplomats rather than on soldiers aged 18 or 19.

Julian Castro, former secretary of housing and urban development under Barack Obama, said Mr Trump “cages kids on the border” and “lets ISIS prisoners run free”.

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